When Richard MacManus published an overview of the so-called Web OS market almost a year ago, he said, “a lot of people don’t consider a WebOS to be a real operating system, but I think that’s semantics and not something worth debating.” It seems many developers […]

When Richard MacManus published an overview of the so-called Web OS market almost a year ago, he said, “a lot of people don’t consider a WebOS to be a real operating system, but I think that’s semantics and not something worth debating.” It seems many developers of these web-based windowing and application platforms agree with him and position their wares accordingly.

Semantics aside, there are good reasons to question whether offerings such as YouOS, EyeOS, Xcerion (which calls itself an “Internet OS”) and others like them should be named after the software category that launched a $280 billion company. Sometimes they are more modestly called webtops, a name that might at once calm the hype and show what they’re really aiming at: putting a desktop facade of questionable benefit onto the web.

The most ambitious Web OS offerings seek to create a Windows or Mac-style desktop that works with data in the cloud. Let’s take YouOS as an example:

YouOS is a new type of platform for web applications. We’re trying to build a single place from which you can access your data, and run a multitude of applications, written by anyone in the YouOS network. Ultimately, we want the data and apps on YouOS to be accessible not only through any browser, but from any number of devices. Your stuff, anywhere, anytime, anyhow. It’s still early, but that’s our vision.

But importing the desktop paradigm into the cloud, onto the Web, represents a step backwards — not one we should crown with a name full of such promise and history as “operating system.” The current architecture of the Web is “small pieces loosely joined” yet none of these webtops appear to hew to such an architecture, except within themselves. They don’t integrate applications and data from across the Web but seek instead to bring the user into an entirely new environment with an entirely new set of applications.

Ajax start pages like yourminis, Netvibes, and Pageflakes overlap in intent and function with the Web OS offerings, the difference being that a Web OS includes a full development environment and often email clients and other desktop software replacements.

Ajax start pages don’t replace the web development paradigm and they integrate pieces from all over. No one — developer, user, investor — will be misled into thinking that Ajax start pages are going to take over the desktop or the Web. A “start page” promises only what it delivers: a beginning for your work and your browsing not a desktop-style replacement.

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  1. Stan Schroeder Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    It would be too long to write everything I want about the topic. I’ll point to one of my older posts instead, directly related to the subject:


  2. The only company that can make something you can call ‘Web OS’ is Google. G-OS or something like that :)

  3. Stan – while I agree with you that it makes sense semantically to call such an offering a “Web OS” especially if it includes a full-on application development environment, it’s misleading in terms of their desirability and their prospects. This underlying issue that runs deeper than semantics might be why some people react so strongly to use of the term Web OS.

    The web itself is the platform — it’s programmable, composable, extensible and it offers a user interface via the browser. Attempts to define yet another platform atop it that somehow reproduce the desktop experience are moving in the wrong direction. The more ambitious of these offerings overreach in trying to take over too many capabilities that the web already offers natively. Plus they do it in a way that uses an old-fashioned paradigm (the desktop).

  4. Anne: I agree 100%.

    The web doesn’t need applications on a WebOS, we already have them – they are called web applications, and you launch them by clicking on your bookmarks.

    The web doesn’t need development tools for applications on the WebOS, we already have them – they are XHTML, CSS, and Javascript.

    The web doesn’t need a WebOS – we already have it – it’s called your browser.

  5. Stan Schroeder Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    @Anne: the term WebOS can be misleading, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s hard to say where the web as a platform will end up at this point. You say the web is the OS? Fine. But on the desktop level, there are many different OS’s. No one would say: “the PC architecture is the OS, everything else is just layers on top”.

    I’m the first one to admit that this is a hard issue, and that I may be wrong on it. But in the meantime, I still have a very real, practical problem of having to call these applications something.

    I’ve had the same problem with Digg-like sites. The term Digg-like is, in my opinion, unfair towards other services, and completely imprecise. That’s why I’m calling these types of applications RSVC – Read Submit Vote Comment.

    The same goes for the WebOS. Lacking another way to call this type of applications, I’ve settled for the lesser evil. As much as I value your arguments in this article, you’ve offered no viable alternative; and though it may be a question of semantics, it becomes very palpable when you actually set out to write something about such applications.

  6. os, operating system…an operating system provides kernel level services, not the least of which is memory management, a file system, a hardware abstraction layer…

    I want to say to the web 2.0 weenies again:


    You are NOT THE GIANT.

    Please, please stop depreciating the decades of work by countless individuals who build operating systems. Your web os does not boot itself, it does not load device interfaces.

    If they did not teach you this in your CS classes, you really should consider the value of your education. If you did not get a CS degree, and consider yourself a software engineer, please at least educate yourself to the last 4 decades of computing.
    The world will not run in a browser, the browser is not the new os…unless it somehow boots my usb flashdrive, provides device contexts that my printer can render….

    It is a framework AT BEST, get it?

  7. BTT | Blog The Tech » Blog Archive » Just don't call it a Web OS Tuesday, April 10, 2007
  8. Daniel Arthursson Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Attention: Anne Zelenka,

    You have written a very interesting article that focuses on an even more interesting subject. The right or wrong of naming different types of software as a Web OS – Internet OS or not? Xcerion agrees that many services are wrongly labeled as an OS.

    Xcerion XML Internet OS (XIOS) does not really fit the bill on the problems you so clearly illustrate though. A clear distinction between what is a real Internet OS or not is the capability to continue to operate in an offline mode. Without offline mode, it is more of a dynamic window manager for server backend code (web applications) than an OS. An offline mode requires many parts of a traditional OS to be in place.

    Maliks Oms article describes our XIOS very well: “Xcerion makes Internet OS real”

    Our XIOS is about 70% of a real OS, we just happened to implement it within a browser, using traditional OS architectures, OO-programming etc and used the browser as the rendering engine. The use of the browser gave us one very valuable point – zero-installation and easier adoption.

    Using standard AJAX technologies, other current web sites and services are able to run side by side from within XIOS and XIOS also lends itself to be extended by already developed JavaScript components or make use of already available XML Web Services. It is ideal for mashups and creating user interfaces on top of Service Oriented Architectures (SOA). XIOS is clearly not trying to create its own universe. Its applications can also be hosted on any web server as an alternative surfing experience as compared to HTML pages.

    XIOS includes a XML virtual machine for running application built on it, even when the user is offline, like any traditional OS. Data changes get synchronized as soon as the user goes online again. This is handles partly by the built in transaction engine (running from within the browser). The XML virtual machine acts like an abstraction layer for developers to really be able to develop applications very rapidly without having to know any AJAX technologies. It clearly opens up the world of desktop applications in a browser to more people than the hardcore developers.

    In many aspects XIOS is a real OS and can easily be differentiated among other so called WebTops, widget portals and productivity suits on the Internet, since they all are bound to constant Internet access and server round-trips.

    What constitutes XIOS? XML virtual machine for executing applications, data communication layer, UI rendering layer, inter application communication, clipboard, virtual file system, search, document versioning, transaction manager, collaboration support, XML Web Services stack, programming APIs, OS extension APIs, extensive XML support, UI components/widgets for building applications, desktop surface, document explorer, task manager, console, visual integrated development environment (IDE) and much more. In other words, most of what an end-user and developer perceives and uses as their operating environment.

    I would argue that trying to redevelop the lowest layers of a traditional OS would not be the best use of resources. Today’s operating systems are more and more becoming a commodity and are in most aspects quite good at handling process scheduling, memory management and device drivers. We want to focus our innovation on the aspects that matters most for the users, ie integrated applications, rapid development of new software and collaborative software that really make use of the Internet and the possibilities with it.

    We stand on the shoulders of previous achievements of the computing industry and Xcerion are extremely focused on bringing new innovative value and user experiences to end-users, not new device drivers. That is what we think will really matters for most people. We call it an Internet Operating System, since it really extends Internet into becoming an OS.

    Like many people that have seen XIOS previously have said – Seeing is believing. Keep an eye on us when we launch.

    Daniel Arthursson, CEO

  9. Zvi Schreiber Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Hi Anne

    Web applications DO require a Web Operating System – to give them a common sign-in, common file system, common data sharing/clip board, common persistent desktop and common look&feel elements.

    While some web desktops are just desktops, G.ho.st (http://G.ho.st) the Global Hosted Opoerating SysTem is going to be a real Web OS – it works with third party Web applications (not with its own applications) and provides a stack including desktop, common widget toolkit, common file system, common data sharing, single sign-in and more. The only layer arguably missing from the equivalent offline operating system is the hardware drivers (and who cares about that). I think you can certainly argue that this constitutes a Web OS but we like to think that it’s fun, useful and cool by any name :-)

    Zvi Schreiber
    CEO, G.ho.st


  10. Mikael Bergkvist Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Xindesk is a different thing, we just happened to create a desktop enviroment to access it.
    Xindesk leverages the most used methodology to create apps for the web there is, namely DHTML, and has moven that to the server, persistent variables, dynamic runtime, document.all, all included, and added an Ajax layer that is applied by default.

    This means that you can cut’n paste a script from dynamicdrive.com, add some database/SQL hooks and run it serverside as a live clientside Ajax application on the fly.

    Our tagline really should be “XIN, when the server is the browser”.

    More at http://www.xindesk.com/blog

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